Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011), by Jane McGonigal


After a few pages, I called Auden to ask how dangerous he believes it is to read bad books, since he warned against doing so. He said this one is more than important enough to take the risk but sternly told me to avoid Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, and lots more and, most pointedly, anyone Oprah recommends. I made the easy promise that I would. I remain on probation, however, even though he acknowledged that here I’m doing a brave favor.

So. We have the young Jane McGonigal, premiere computer game designer, player, theorist, philosopher, keynoter and, above all, I think, consultant to the game industry.

Was she minding that sadly profitable business when someone or two said, Why not write a book? Here we have to imagine a conversion process–I haven’t any evidence for this particular imagining–not whispered anywhere in the text and which lies far below the lines. (1) Who, me? (2) OK, but I want to tell it like it is. (3) That won’t work, eh? (4) Don’t you think “Reality is Broken” is stretching it as a title? (5) I see, you have to grab ’em. (6) Don’t you think the idea that gamers will save the world is stretching it? (7) I see, it’s a proven storyline in a lot of movies and old books and, uhm, well, I guess you do have to flatter ’em in order to sell a book like this. (8) So, it does make me feel better when you say practically everyone ends up doing this, anyway. (9) Well, my friends say, Why not? (10) Pardon me? Yes, I know quite a few researchers in academic Positive Psychology departments. (11) So we need a new twist on that stuff, eh? It always sells, does it? (12) Well, OK. I can fit games into the Positive stuff! (13) Besides, I like what you said about getting across to my real hidden audience, the game industry, namely, how that industry can become even more profitable!

So: You have to start by surmising what lies many fathoms down in the depths between her smiley faced sentences. Diving between the lines, I guess you could say.

We’re on our way down.

That was Jules Verne we just sank past.

And, as the trail of bubbles lengthens, you’re justified in asking, For what are we diving?

The usual. Buried treasure!

And it’s truly on the Bottom.

And my goodness, here we are!

And look, there’s a chest over there! I’m opening it.

Well. The chest contains (1) the enormous and accelerating computer game community–millions if not billions of “gamers” globally (most, but hardly all, younger than twenty-five); (2) the huge and increasingly lucrative game design, development and marketing industry; and (3) the Positive Thinking industry.

Yeah, that last one….

That’s what McGonigal has discovered under, I’m strongly suspecting, “editorial guidance.” See, here’s the deal. There’s a sucker born every minute. You’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of your consumers. And all that dismal stuff from people like Barnum and Mencken. But the thing is, these big revival-like meetings attended collectively by millions of True Believers–the happy Positive Stuff being dispensed by the Self-help gurus Barbara Ehrenreich savages (of course, to no avail) in Bright-Sided–reveal a problem in “economic engagement.” That means difficulties in being able repeatedly to con with the same old cons, cons that are not “participatory” in the “social space.”

When you lecture with cute charts up on a stage about The Seven Secrets to Owning the World (it could be five secrets or maybe ten secrets, though editors say ten is stretching the “cognitive bandwidth” of your audience of Believers clutching their Happy Teddy Bears at $39.95 each and available in the Lobby before the revival starts), that’s all you’re doing: talking.

I’m betting it has come to gamer McGonigal, surely with some “editorial guidance,” that, well, talk is cheap. That old truism. But here we mean talk that is cheap in a literal way. After the Believers go home, bad stuff happens. The spell doesn’t dwell. Deepak isn’t there any longer. Bad old Broken Reality intrudes: foreclosure notices, calls from the Hospital Accounting Office, bunion surgery, lonely afternoons with Regis and, well, all that real stuff. Those self-help mantras…they just pale. That teddy bear may end up in the nearest landfill, and probably it’ll be harder to sell ’em another teddy bear, even a Zen one, next year during the big Return Engagement at Acme Arena. Might not even be a sellout. At least until the Economy improves.

Meanwhile, there’s a problem in the accelerating computer gaming industry. It’s the old Limits to Growth problem. Yes, there are millions of gamers all over the world. But how can we get there to be billions?

By blending gaming with Positive Psychology, that’s how!

And here’s the great leap forward. You must keep saying: Virtuality trumps reality. And “participation” trumps “passivity.” You want to be positively happy? Then design games the right way. Keep those rewards coming. Don’t have anyone wait very long for them. Don’t allow any doubts of “success.” And be epic–Save the World.

You can always be happy virtually, is the theme.

Yes, gamers will save the world! Tolkien. Orson Scott Card. Science fiction/fantasy movies with colons in their titles.

(We’ll worry about police states tomorrow.)

Anathema is any hint of thinking along the lines of a cartoon drawn a decade or so ago: it showed a gamer with his head inside the computer screen but his seat planted firmly in reality.

The game wave is huge, now tidal. “MMO” = massive multiplayer online games. It’s “Epics.” Save the world. The Universe. All that is good. The old stale adolescent mythology.

Reality Is Broken says a lot about the history of computer games and, most importantly, and down deep most cynically (I must believe), how to design them not so much to save the world as to take over a portion of the world for fabulous profits. The book is written to flatter gamers and potential gamers while simultaneously laying out for the game industry how exactly to “harness” (McGonigal/editors failed to weed out all such Freudian slips) the time of the millions (hopefully, for McGonigal et al., eventually billions) of buyers of games by rewarding them with feel-goodness, dreams of power, false accomplishments. She goes to some lengths in a cheerful con to build to a sort of mad Wagnerian final scene in which, as the chapter title says, gamers of the future will be “Saving the Real World Together.”

No need for detail. You can imagine it.

McGonigal is playing around here with some very deep human stuff, but I don’t get a sense that she is looking at it with any interest other than commercial.

Even though reality is a “vale of tears,” as was said long ago, and humans want refuges, they are also firmly planted in “the real world.” In these times of the Great Virtual, you have place hope in our invincible hunger for that world.